Northern Ireland Peace Walls: The Beginning and Not-So-Near End (Shane M.)

NORTHERN IRELAND PEACE WALLS:  The Beginning, And the Not-So-Near End

A Belfast Peace Wall

The peace walls are a series of barriers constructed of stone, steel, or concrete that can be over 6 meters tall. These walls are located in Northern Ireland and serve to separate the two dominant populations of the land into segregated living spaces. The two parties involved are the Republican and Nationalist Catholic population, and the Loyalist and Unionist Protestant population. The peace walls were erected in direct response to escalating violence in Northern Ireland between the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Ulster loyalist paramilitary groups, and British state security forces. Most of the Catholics are nationalists who self-identify as Irish, while most of the protestants are unionists who self-identify as British. The passion both sides feel towards their allegiances is deep-rooted. The conflict in Northern Ireland stems from religion, politics, and power.

It is undeniable that Catholics in the north faced oppression from the Protestant population. Catholics faced significant discrimination from a Protestant population that composed 65 per cent of the population, compared to the 35 per cent of the population who were Catholic. The majority status of the Protestants allowed them to impose their will on the minority with little resistance. Catholics were second-class citizens. Good jobs, housing and economic opportunities were all rigged in favor of the Protestants. Political representation for the Catholics was nonexistent.

The political and religious divide between Ireland and England is detailed in Feargal Cochrane’s book Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace: “As the political history of Ireland evolved during the seventeenth century, the struggle for power connected religion to politics and to nationalism in ways that made is relatively easy to define and recognize in-groups and out-groups, loyal and disloyal, friend and enemy. As a result of the Protestant reformation in England, religion became a key divider between the dominant and the dominated sectors of society, this in itself being linked to attempts by the Protestant English state to colonize and Anglicize Ireland for both political and economic advantage. Ireland had resources, such as land that could be given in reward for service by the English Crown to its soldiers. Ireland was also a potential security threat to Britain as a launch pad for foreign invasions from Spain and elsewhere, and its stubborn adherence to Catholicism increased this perceived threat considerably. As a result, resources were confiscated from the ‘native’ Catholic population and given to the newer Protestant community. This was done in a number of ways, through a combination of bribery and force, as the English Crown attempted to colonize and control Ireland, and thereby to enhance its own political and territorial security”.

The tensions between Northern Ireland and Ireland came to somewhat of a conclusion following the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Both Ireland and Northern, Catholics and Protestants alike, felt equally represented by this agreement.

This PBSNewsHour clip reveals a substantial glimpse into the feelings on the ground in Northern Ireland

Despite the relative peace that was reached with the establishment of the Good Friday Agreement, the number of peace walls erected since 1998 has actually risen. While the Good Friday Agreement provided adequate representation for the Catholic Nationalists in British parliament, segregation on the ground between the two parties continued. Catholics still felt they faced discrimination and unfair practices. In order to understand the complexity of the Catholics and Protestant divide, one must have a grasp on the age of the conflict. The people fighting, on both sides, have deep-rooted passion that renders them more inclined to believe in one side. The root of the problem comes from a religious divide. This division, and the tendencies of England and Ireland to trend to be Protestant and Catholic respectively, is the main reason for the divide. Catholics and Protestants have lived with the peace walls for so long, and generally benefited from their existence in so many ways, that many people on the ground do not wish to have the walls removed.

This is a deeply ideological problem, a problem that cannot be solved in simple terms. The creation of physical walls as a response to this philosophical issue reveals the drastic nature of the problem. No other solutions could have been reached except for the creation of physical barriers between peoples.

Additional first-hand accounts of citizens on the ground

The divide has only grown. Modern day holidays and parades that take place in Northern Ireland echo the same divisive rhetoric that was uttered during the height of the Troubles. An example of old traditions still being enacted in Norther Ireland is the celebration of ‘The Twelfth’, a holiday which celebrates William Orange’s victory over Catholic King James II in 1690. Nearly all of the violence, bloodshed, and wall building in Ireland can all be traced to William of Orange’s loss.

Image of “The Twelfth” holiday being celebrated in Northern Ireland (July, 2014)

The peace walls are contradictory in their very name. The word “peace” doesn’t carry connotations of large walls designed to divide people. Nevertheless, although the actual objective of the peace walls is to promote peace and protect life, they are undeniably controversial. Creating peace through physical barriers is a paradox. At the heart of the issues between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland is something that cannot be solved simply through physical means. The problems at hand stem from ideological beliefs. Recent research has shown that for many residents who live in areas where interfaces are present in their daily lives (people living near walls that separate distinct areas), having a physical barrier present provides them with a sense of protection and safety.  Other scholars and academics have argued the opposite, believing that interfaces such as the peace walls have a formulating effect of religious and political differences.  The physical barrier heightens the differences between the parties at hand, rendering the party on the other side of the wall as an “immediately opposed community”. The spatial differences between parties involved is capable of providing a wide variety of feelings to each respective party, but there is not one uniform feeling that is generated equally among each respective side.  The peace walls contradict itself with the very utterance of their name. The “success” of the peace walls is entirely subjective and relative to the alignment of whichever affiliations the thinker himself holds most dear.


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